Partner Spotlight: George Mason University’s Offices of Sustainability & Energy Management

Virginia Energy Sense interviewed Ben Auger, Sustainability Program Manager Education & Outreach, from George Mason University’s Office of Sustainability to discuss how his office is playing a key role in encouraging energy efficiency on campus. Ben’s responses were supplemented and strengthened by contributions from Tom Reinsel, Director, Environmental Quality and Energy Efficiency, as well as the entire Office of Sustainability team: Greg Farley, Sustainability Director, Sarah D’Alexander, Sustainability Program Manager Patriot Green Fund, Doni Nolan, Sustainability Program Manager Greenhouse and Gardens, and Amber Saxton, Sustainability Program Manager Campus Efficiencies.

Please provide a short summary of what the Office of Sustainability is and the work it does on George Mason University’s campus. 

Founded in 2007, the Office of Sustainability (OoS) utilizes the strengths of George Mason University – innovation, responsiveness, flexibility, and community strength – to provide leadership in environmental, social and economic stewardship on our campuses and throughout the local and global communities Mason is part of. With strong support from key partners and the Mason community, the OoS has achieved a lot: Mason is regularly featured in the Princeton Review’s Guide to Green Colleges, in Sierra magazine’s “Cool Schools” ranking, and even earned a Silver certification (the Arlington campus is Bronze) from the League of American Bicyclists. In 2010, Mason released its first Climate Action Plan (CAP) designed in collaboration between students, faculty and staff that charted a green course for the university. And, in 2014, Mason became the first university in the Commonwealth of Virginia to earn a coveted “Gold” rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE) Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS). More recently, the Institute for a Sustainable Earth (ISE) and the OoS partnered with the Earth Day Network (EDN) for their first-ever, state-based campaign to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day on April 22nd, 2020. Currently, the OoS, led by the new Sustainability Director Greg Farley, is supporting Mason’s Sustainability Council as they develop a Strategic Plan for Sustainability as well as a Climate Action Plan. Both plans are essential to help Mason achieve the sustainable future it desires.

Looking ahead, how do you see Virginia meeting its goal of becoming more energy efficient? 

Mason is committed to continuously improving its energy efficiency. According to Mason’s 2017 greenhouse gas emissions inventory, 71% of emissions are scope 1 (emissions from sources owned or controlled by Mason) and scope 2 (emissions resulting from the generation of electricity, heat, or steam purchased by Mason). Since 2005, Mason has worked with Siemens Building Technologies to complete two Energy Savings Performance Contracts to improve the energy and water efficiency of its buildings. The contracts resulted in upgrades to heating and air conditioning equipment, the replacement of existing lighting with more energy efficient lighting and occupancy sensors, and improvements to automation systems so they’re more responsive to weather and occupancy schedules. Because of these upgrades, Mason saves approximately $2.5 million every year. Although many improvements have been made, Mason continues to invest in energy efficient lighting and equipment. In 2016, Mason published a university policy on energy reaffirming Mason’s commitment to the efficient and productive use of energy while constantly working to reduce energy consumption and emissions.

As far as the Commonwealth of Virginia goes, there is significant momentum for increased energy efficiency. In September of 2019, Governor Ralph Northam signed Executive Order 43 which set ambitious statewide goals for energy deployment and use. It also committed the Commonwealth of Virginia to continue to reduce its environmental impacts while mitigating the effects of climate change. According to Executive Order 43, by 2030, 30% of Virginia’s electric system will be powered by renewable energy resources and by 2050, 100% of Virginia’s electricity will be produced from carbon-free sources such as nuclear, solar and wind.

Additionally, the Commonwealth of Virginia has a clearly articulated voluntary goal of reducing electric consumption 10% (from a 2006 baseline) by 2022. In a 2018 report (see prior link), the Virginia Department of Mines, Materials, and Energy noted that use had grown slightly, due largely to population growth. The available incentives and initiatives for energy efficiency focus on individual action by homeowners, businesses, and utilities. Therefore, the Commonwealth of Virginia is hoping that individual stakeholders will engage with efficiency planning, and it is willing to help subsidize, or otherwise support, those decisions. State government is contributing to the overall 10% reduction goal; a 2014 executive order set a goal of 15% reduction in use by government entities. Progress towards that goal, normalized for growth, showed a 6.5% reduction by 2018. Nationally, buildings, during both construction and operation, account for approximately 40% of energy use and 70% of electricity use. For this reason, energy efficiency incentives in Virginia focus primarily on building-scale efficiency. This misses the point, though; Virginia emissions are dominated by transportation: 37.6% of state emissions come from the transportation sector. That’s not the same as energy use, but it is indicative of large-scale energy inefficiency in transportation. Yet none of the available energy efficiency incentives in Virginia affect the transportation sector. This is an enormous opportunity for the Commonwealth to save both emissions and money.

What advice does the Office of Sustainability have for people who are trying to conserve energy and lower their energy use? 

The OoS’ Green Residence program and the Green Office Challenge inform and inspire Mason students, faculty, and staff to conserve energy and water on campus. Although our messaging and advice for those programs are Mason-specific, we’d like to share some general tips and suggestions to help you conserve and lower your energy use:

  • Be aware of how much you pay for energy and electricity. Take the time to read and understand your power bills. They’re full of good information. If you run a small business, look for differences between your home’s energy bills and the bills for your business.
  • Know where and how your home or business uses energy. Is your hot water tank gas-fired, or electric? How about your clothes dryer? What kinds of light bulbs do you have in your retail space? How efficient is your heating and cooling equipment?
  • Try to use energy only when you really need it. It’s the oldest advice we have but turn off your lights when you leave the room and turn off appliances when they’re not in use. You wouldn’t leave a faucet running when you leave home – so you probably shouldn’t leave the lights on, either. Adjust thermostats so your house doesn’t condition the air to “full comfort” conditions while you’re away.
  • Look for low-cost ways to reduce energy use:
    • Change the filter in your furnace or air conditioner.
    • Have your heating and cooling equipment serviced annually.
    • Change your lightbulbs: LED bulbs can reduce energy use by more than 80% over an incandescent bulb, and they’re very inexpensive.
    • Use motion sensors, or daylight sensors, for outdoor lights. Motion sensors are also useful inside, especially in little-used spaces.
  • Engage with new technologies.
    • Programmable thermostats have improved a lot since they were first introduced. Many of them are now Wi-Fi-capable, meaning you can control them with your phone.
    • Newer “smart” thermostats can learn your use patterns and shape your home’s energy use very precisely.
    • You can also integrate your home energy devices with smart technology that will allow you to control your thermostat and other devices by voice or from your phone. In turn, those devices can help optimize your energy use.
  • Work with your utility. They are willing to help you reduce your energy use because it helps them generate less, which saves them money on fuel. Many utilities will help you do a simple home energy audit to find effective and inexpensive ways to waste less energy.
  • Work with your government. Many states have a state agency dedicated to energy use and policy; those agencies often have rebate programs or other incentives that can help you save money on your energy bill.
  • Discover the incentives for efficiency in your location. Use the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency, which is hosted by the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center.Also visit Virginia Energy Sense’s website to learn more about the latest residential and commercial incentives your utilities and co-ops offer.
  • If you can do it, consider improvements to your home or business.
    • Insulate, insulate, insulate. This is the most effective way to spend money on structural improvements. Invest in attic insulation; wall insulation and weather-sealing; sealing the ducts in your air-conditioning and heating system; and door and window weather-stripping.
    • Have an engineer assess whether upgrading your heating and cooling equipment will save you money month-to-month.
    • Plant trees! Trees shade your structure in the hottest months of the year. You can often acquire free seedlings or saplings from the Arbor Day Foundation, the US Forest Service, or your state forestry agency.
    • Don’t own your structure? Work with your landlord – the improvements you make can lower your energy bills and add value to their structure.
    • Consider on-site renewable energy, like solar panels. For larger businesses, consider combined heat-and-power (CHP) equipment that can generate electricity and put heat into your structure. Your fuel costs may rise, but they’ll often be offset by savings in your electricity bill, and you’ll still have power during outages.
  • Go see this technology in use before you buy! Colleges and universities are often eager to show you what they’ve done, and how much they’ve saved.

Can you tell us more about the Patriot Green Fund? Are there any recent projects that have been successes on campus? 

The Patriot Green Fund (PGF) is a $100,000 grant provided by Mason’s Facilities department that Mason students, staff, and faculty can use to conduct impactful sustainability research or implement infrastructure improvement projects on campus. Some of the PGF’s projects have focused on energy-specific initiatives which have reduced Mason’s environmental impact by promoting alternative forms of energy use on Mason’s campuses. One group of students, for example, is currently exploring the use of solar and hydropower as a source of energy for outdoor charging stations.

The PGF has been a sponsor for the Mechanical Engineering capstone class’ design projects as part of the OoS’ commitment to addressing sustainability challenges with innovative solutions. Participating students have created robots that navigate stormwater pipes to look for defects and developed artificial intelligence software that scans thermal images to assess energy loss from buildings. Current students are researching the possibility of installing sensors on trash compactors to collect data about Mason’s waste.

Since its inception in 2011, the PGF has supported more than 65 individual projects. The PGF is a tremendous resource for students, faculty and staff; it empowers the Mason community to respond to sustainability challenges by being part of the solution.

If you’d like to learn more about individual PGF projects, you can view a list of funded projects from Academic Year (AY) 2011/12 through AY 2018/19 by clicking here.

How long has the Green Office Program been active at George Mason University? Is there any data that highlights how many offices have become Green Office Certified? 

The Green Office Program was initially created to provide offices and departments with the knowledge and tools necessary to enhance the sustainability of their operations. Participating offices received certification as a result of the number, and impact, of actively implemented sustainability practices. In 2018, the Green Office Program boasted participation from sixteen different offices, some even located at Mason’s Arlington campus. After many years of successful operation, the Green Office Program underwent a strategic review in 2019 to determine how to best fulfill its vision of “greening” Mason while supporting the Mason community. Upon completion of the strategic review, the Green Office Program was rebranded as the Green Office Challenge. The Green Office Challenge maintains the focus of the original Green Office Program while facilitating a collaborative response to the very real challenge of integrating sustainability into administrative operations. The Green Office Challenge encourages sustainable behavior in seven key focus-areas: energy, waste, events/programming, purchasing, transportation, participation, and innovation. In the spring of 2020, the revised Green Office Challenge will launch its pilot initiative with participation from twelve different offices.

Are there any other initiatives or events the Office of Sustainability has planned for the rest of the year? 

The Office of Sustainability (OoS) is incredibly engaged with and responsive to the Mason community. We can’t possibly showcase everything that we’re doing, but we’ll highlight a few upcoming events that we hope you’ll be just as excited about as we are. The OoS, along with the Leadership Education and Development (LEAD) Office, the Office of International Programs and Services (OIPS), and the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution’s (S-CAR) Dialogue & Difference project, is hosting Environmental Science and Policy Professor & Coordinator of Sustainability Initiatives, Dr. Dann Sklarew, who will present “Rapid Global Climate Change: Threat and/or Opportunity?” as part of the Right, Wrong, or Different series from 6pm-8pm on February 20, 2020 in Research Hall room 163. On March 4, 2020, the OoS, in partnership with Mason AthleticsEagleBank Arena, and Sodexo Dining Services, will coordinate the annual zero-waste Green Game at Mason’s Men’s Basketball game, our entry into NWF’s national RecycleMania competition. Mason has placed 3rd the past two years for waste diversion and per capita diversion. On Earth Day, we will host an EcoFest event that highlights the various sustainability projects and initiatives Mason’s students, faculty, and staff are working on while sharing the many ways folks can get more involved with sustainability at Mason. Along with year-round energy efficiency efforts, every summer one of the OoS’ key partners, Mason’s Energy Management Department, supervises a demand response program: ‘Lights Out, Power Down.’ This energy conservation program is associated with Mason’s participation in the “Interruptible Load Reliability” (ILR) program with PJM Interconnection. During the 2019 ‘Lights Out, Power Down event,’ Mason doubled its commitment to reduce energy use by 4,000 kilowatt during the one-hour shutdown.

Speaking of energy use, the OoS and Housing and Residence Life support the Green Residence Program which works behind the scenes to improve the efficiency of operations while providing students with the knowledge and tools necessary to engage in sustainable living behaviors. Students’ sustainable behaviors help to decrease the use of resources as well as the generation of waste. The OoS also partners with the Office of Parking and Transportation on alternative transportation projects such as a free bike check-out program for Mason students, staff, and faculty and supports initiatives such as shuttle and bus services, carpooling, and Electric Vehicle (EV) charging. The OoS’ work is significantly enhanced by our many partnerships, so we wish to extend a very special thank you to everyone that supports us, we’re deeply grateful for your continued collaboration. Thank you.

In 2020, are there any industry trends you’re seeing in the energy efficiency space? 

The “green building” movement is catching on. Many states have established minimum energy-efficiency standards for new buildings, which recognizes that the long-term savings on water and energy in a “green” building can justify up-front costs in design and construction. USGBC LEED certification is now nearly an industry standard, and newer certifications like Living Buildings or Green Globes are pushing building efficiency to new heights. It helps that these buildings are more beautiful, and offer better working conditions, than minimum-cost construction. More specifically, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, per the 2009 Commonwealth of Virginia Executive Order 82, all “new buildings and major renovations over 5,000 square feet” must be built to LEED Silver standard. As Mason continues to grow, we are building to and above that standard. Mason has constructed a total of 8 LEED certified buildings since 2010.

There seems to be increased interest in very detailed monitoring of energy use. There are, for example, firms that will help monitor power use 24/7 on 5- to 15-minute intervals, and that data can be used to assess the performance of different equipment. Used properly, it can also forecast maintenance issues, like motor failure, which can save money on maintenance and repair bills as well as electricity bills. Commercial buildings have had this capacity for the last 5-10 years, but you can now purchase home energy monitoring systems that will do the same things for residential structures.

There’s increasing use of “internet of things” devices – internet-connected devices that help manage energy consumption. These devices often monitor energy use in real time, and many of them will cooperate with other devices to balance out, and conserve, energy use. A few of them reach out to the internet for real-time energy pricing and will only run devices when prices meet a chosen benchmark (for example, in some grid sections, it’s less expensive to run your dishwasher after midnight).

There’s also increased interest in energy resilience coupled with efficiency. Statistics vary, but the US electrical grid suffers a startling number of small outages – many 5 minutes or less – every day. Those outages interrupt data flow, including financial transactions, and can cause a lot of damage to sensitive operations like “cloud” data centers and health care operations. More and more, businesses are looking at microgrid or nano-grid technology, where onsite generation and electricity storage can be deployed to maintain operations in times of grid stress. Lots of those generation facilities are also more efficient than traditional diesel-backup generation, and in the best cases, they are coupled with energy efficiency efforts in the buildings themselves, reducing the demand for generation.

There’s hope, and some planning, for vehicle-to-grid applications. As electric vehicles become more common, it may be possible to use these “rolling batteries,” when parked, to help meet building electricity demands on a moment-by-moment basis. Doing this in widespread fashion will help utilities reduce the use of “peak plants” — often older, less efficient, higher-polluting generation sources — to meet instantaneous demand on the electricity grid. This improves the efficiency of the electric grid and helps reduce pollution.

Lesson Plans
close slider


Get your students energized about responsible energy use! In partnership with the Virginia Department of Education, we’ve created fun, multi-day, Lesson plans to help you teach your students how to understand and conserve energy! They’re classroom-ready and free to use!